Equal access to education for under-represented people and for people with disabilities has lately become an important aim for higher education institutions (HEI). It challenges HEIs to develop fresh and effective inclusive strategies to ensure access for everyone. An awareness of the diversity and principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are crucial in order to develop inclusive education to meet effectively the needs of all students, to design learning environments and to foster knowledge and learning skills for everyone. The scope of UDL is based on three main principles (Rose & Gravel, 2010):
providing multiple means of engagement;
providing multiple means of representation; and
providing multiple means of action and expression.
These principles address means by which students are engaged in learning, means by which information is presented to the student, and means by which the student is required to express what they know. For implementing UDL principles, there are simple Universal Design Instructions (UDI) that help to consider aspects of learning; including instructional climate, interaction, physical environments and products, delivery methods, information resources and technology, feedback, and assessment (Burgstahler, 2019).
As a result of wider use of eLearning and on-line delivery of courses as an alternative or a complimentary to face-to-face offerings, there is an expanded access to higher education across population and diverse groups. While eLearning may offer great opportunities to students with various background, there are still accessibility challenges to be solved. Despite many technical standards available and specifics to make eLearning platforms accessible, the pedagogical and didactic perspective of accessibility is rarely fully met. Often the case is that students can access to the eLearning platform, but not to contents, resources, activities, collaboration and interaction tools.
The ERASMUS+ project Towards Inclusive eLearning: Improving Accessibility of eLearning in Higher Education from Universal Design for Learning perspective (TINEL) is attempting to increase the knowledge and use of UDL principles in higher education practices (www.hamk.fi/tinel). The project has a triple focus on improving Universal Design for eLearning (UDeL):
to enhance access, active participation, and learning performance of disadvantaged HEI students.
to support the professional development of educators in their pedagogical and technological skills so they will be able to improve the accessibility of eLearning.
to contribute to a greater understanding and responsiveness to social, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity amongst students.
A Call for Proposals
As a part of TINEL project, a Call for Proposals was launched to present the current best practice initiatives for inclusive and flexible education in eLearning and blended learning. Proposals providing an overview of the landscape and diversity of UDeL were chosen to be rewarded and extended into articles. Rewarding was done at the UDeL 2019 Conference in Jyväskylä, Finland on the 28th – 29th of August. Rewarded proposals are:
Aalto University, Finland: Nordic Rebels: A Blended Approach to Fix Higher Education
University of Agder, Norway: Digital competency – An introductory course to digital tools for education and collaboration
Häme University of Applied Sciences, Finland: The Video Documentary “Songs from the Life” as a part of final thesis of three students (Bachelors of Social Services)
University of Jyväskylä, Finland: Crossing borders without travel: Virtual exchange practices for student.
A diversity of UDeL
The case Songs from life describes the teacher-student level approach in which the teacher needs to react to a problem that arises during a course to accommodate a specific student situation. This situation was not planned or predicted before the start of the course, but the teacher became aware of a situation and a specific pedagogical solution for a student with difficulties in concentration and textual expression. The solution was to allow the student to make a video documentary. Further on, this could be planned as an alternative for all students when the course is given again. This is one way of moving towards UDL step by step. When a teacher becomes aware of a student’s preferences, the solutions to this increased diversity will be consciously planned in the future to improve the course for all students.
The case Digital competency provides a proactive approach to UDeL at course level. Teachers planned and thoroughly tested the accessibility of a new eLearning course with a target group of students who have challenges with sight, hearing and language. The focus was largely on technical accessibility of the learning platform and content and on a diversity of students with disabilities.
The case Crossing borders without travel describes a top-down, proactive approach. The initiative originates at the department level, which encouraged the teacher to introduce the possibility of virtual exchange (VE) visits as well as physical exchange visits into a campus-based course. The case considers students who are able-bodied as well as students with different challenges. Students have a possibility to gain experience from intercultural dialogues with students from different countries. The common way is study exchanges, but this is not a preferred solution for all students for financial, family, work, personal or health reasons. Students might not be able to afford such a visit, or are too shy, to go abroad for a long period, or circumstances could be such that they need to work or take care of a family member at home. VE was the solution to this problem, changing the course from being only campus-based to be a blended learning course with a multitude of interaction possibilities between students. The focus from the teacher is pedagogic solutions and accessible technology, which is decided between collaborating students from different countries.
The case Nordic Rebels has a more philosophical and reflective perspective about how students learn in society and furthermore how university courses and pedagogy should change from being lecture-based to being student-focused, by creating meaningful learning experiences for all students. Blended learning and flipped classroom methods are presented as good examples of how technology can help in going this direction. The case describes a top-down, proactive approach at the societal and course levels, and portrays UDL as a solution and an aid to understanding academic diversity and individual differences among students, for example a “mixture of nationalities, genders, disciplines and prior work experience” as well as considering “students working alongside their studies” and being able to study at their own pace, due to varying English skills or prior experience in the subject. Also, by giving the students a sense of course flexibility, the teacher can lower the threshold and allow the students to suggest course changes that support their learning.
The focus is on the everyday use of UDeL
The TINEL project aims to develop resources for HEI’s staff to support the implementation of UDeL in practise. The focus is on the everyday use of UDeL in teaching and learning activities.